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W.H. Auden’s title “The Unknown Citizen” is ironic because, in fact, much is known about the supposedly “unknown” citizen. Like the unknown soldier whose body has been destroyed—the allusion in the title—the the unknown citizen’s individuality and spirit have been destroyed: he has been reduced to statistics.
The central point Auden makes with his questions is that this individual is not free, nor is he happy. Because he did everything that was expected of him for the “Greater Community” (line 5), he never took a chance to learn what he wanted or to become a fully realized individual. He was a conformist who “was popular with his mates” (line 13), and “Social Psychology workers” (line 12) even went so far as to note that “his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way” (line 15). Later we are told that he held “proper opinions for the time of year” (line 23). He supported war or peace, depending on which opinion was more in vogue. In other words, he never thought for himself but just jumped on the popularity bandwagon.
In answer to the questions “Was he free? Was he happy?” the speaker (not Auden) says, “The question is absurd.” But that’s Auden being ironic; to Auden the question is not absurd at all. No one who sells his soul to what’s popular and expected, who never has an original thought of his own, can truly be free. He is constrained and even owned by the society in which he lives. Such a person, Auden suggests, can never be deeply happy.
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